LAND O’ LAKES — Curtis Reeves Jr. spent seven months in the Pasco County Jail proclaiming his innocence in a fatal movie-theater shooting and fighting for release to await his chance to prove it.
An appeals court sided with him Friday and the 71-year-old former Tampa police captain walked out of the Land O’ Lakes lockup around 8 p.m.
About 25 relatives and friends applauded as he passed through the front doors. He stopped for hugs.
“What a wonderful day it is for the Reeves family,” said his attorney, Richard Escobar. “At the end of a long journey, he is free. He is where he should be. He is where he should have been from the beginning.”
There was no joy among relatives and friends of Chad Oulson, the 43-year-old man Reeves shot during an argument that began over texts Olson was writing on his mobile phone during movie previews.
“It’s just unbelievably unfair,” said attorney T.J. Grimaldi, who represents Oulson’s widow Nicole Olson. She was shot in the hand with the bullet that pierced her husband’s chest.
Grimaldi called a press conference at his Tampa office Friday after learning Reeves would be released. Nicole Oulson was too upset to attend, he said.
She trusted that Reeves would stay in jail until his trial only to learn he will be able to spend the time at home with his family, Grimaldi said.
“We will continue to help Nicole through this process,” Grimaldi said. “And we will hope that the sentiment of everybody doesn’t change and know that they’re continuing to support Chad Oulson in this and not Mr. Reeves.”
Reeves, who is charged with second-degree murder and aggravated battery, has been held without bail since he was arrested Jan. 13 in the shooting that day at Cobb Grove 16 Theatre in Wesley Chapel.
Pasco County Circuit Court Judge Pat Siracusa denied a motion for release after a hearing in February.
But on Friday, the Second District Court of Appeal said Reeves should be released or told why not.
The ruling by Judge Chris Altenbernd of Tampa said Siracusa had not explained his decision and noted that pretrial release is a right under Florida’s Constitution.
“We conclude that he is entitled to some relief,” the ruling said.
Soon after, Siracusa reversed himself and said Reeves can be released. He set bail at $150,000.
The February bail hearing lasted two days and played out like a mini-trial, centered on a surveillance video from the theater.
The argument between the two men started as Chad Oulson began texting the babysitter of his young daughter. Reeves, who had a concealed weapons permit at the time of the shooting, confronted Oulson and left the theater to complain to the theater’s manager.
Once Reeves returned to his seat, the men exchanged words.
Chad Oulson threw popcorn at Reeves. Moments later, Reeves pulled a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol from his pants pocket and fired one shot into Chad Oulson’s chest. The same bullet pierced the Nicole Oulson;’s hand as she raised it to her husband’s chest.
The video shows the small flash of an object moving towards Reeves. His attorneys claimed that it was the glow from a cell phone Oulson threw before the shot was fired. They say Reeves, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, acted in self-defense.
Reeves remained at the theater and was arrested there.
Siracusa denied the motion to grant bond in the case, saying he expected an appeal.
“Mr. Reeves was prepared for this,” attorney Escobar said then. “This is a homicide case. In the vast majority of homicide cases, bond is not granted.
But on Friday, after the appeals court ruling was issued, Siracusa reversed himself and said Reeves can be released. He set bail at $150,000.
As a condition of his release, Reeves must remain under house arrest, wear a monitoring device at all times, stay away from the victim’s widow, and refrain from possessing a firearm.
He will be allowed to travel for religious services, medical treatment and grocery shopping.
Earlier this week, Siracusa set the next hearing in the case for Sept. 10. Trial is not expected until next year.
The incarceration has taken a toll on Reeves, Escobar said in a news conference at his Tampa office.
“It’s difficult enough for a young man to spend six months in the Pasco County Jail. It’s far harsher for a 71-year-old man, who is innocent of this crime, to spend six months in jail.”
After the news conference, Escobar drove to Land O’ Lakes to pick up Reeves, bail money ready.
“This is a great day for our system of justice, for Curtis Reeves and his family,” Escobar said.
“He is coming home in order to resume his life and to assist us in preparing his defense. ... His confidence in our system of justice has never wavered. It has been so strong.”
Escobar asked that the public reserve judgement until trial.
“Remember, the laws of Florida protect those that are 65 years of age and older for a reason,” Escobar said. “Because those individuals are vulnerable. And if they get hit in the face or in the head with a cell phone, that particular strike could be deadly.”
Staff writer Kevin Wiatrowski contributed to this report.